Heyward wowing Chicago Cubs with ability, smarts
Spring training had barely begun, and it seemed Jason Heyward already had won the "wow" factor in Cubs camp.
And it wasn't just for his physical baseball abilities, which are very impressive.
"Awesome," said first baseman Anthony Rizzo. "He's very advanced with everything. He sees everything. He watches everything. He pays attention to everything, which in my opinion is not easy to do.
"Baseball smart. He's five steps ahead of the game, anticipating this, anticipating moves off the bench -- 'Why would you throw that guy this pitch in this situation? -- little things that are really hard to explain to an outsider."
In another word: wow.
That kind of talk in the sports world has been reserved for a select few. Wayne Gretzky in hockey and Lionel Messi in soccer come to mind as having a sixth sense. As great as Gretzky was and Messi is, neither man possessed Heyward's physical stature of 6-feet-5 and 245 pounds.
"What impresses me about him is that he's a complete baseball player," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "Again, I think people get hung up on batting average and all this other stuff a little bit too much, although I think he's going to hit for really high numbers in all the necessary areas as he moves it along.
"He's a really good outfielder. He throws really well. He runs great routes. He's communicative on defense. He's one of the best baserunners in the National League, actually maybe the best. Offensively, he has an eye at the plate. He knows how to look over a pitch. I think he's shown power in the past. You're going to see it again. The average is going to really climb."
For his six-year career -- five with the Braves and last year with the Cardinals -- Heyward has a batting line of .268/.353/.431 with 97 home runs and 352 RBI. With the Cardinals, he went .293/.359/.439 with 13 homers and 60 RBI. He enjoyed his biggest power production with the Braves in 2012, when he hit 27 homers, drove in 82 and had an OPS of .814.
In December, the Cubs made Heyward their signature off-season acquisition, awarding him an eight-year contract worth $184 million.
Heyward is aware of what his teammates and manager have been saying about him.
"I hope they're saying nice things, but I'm not asking them to say any of those," he said. "It's cool. It's awesome. We've competed against each other, some of these guys. Some of these guys, we've played together. They just love me as a person. That's what's cool.
"For me, how can I help my team win? That's the number I care about, the 'W' at the end of the year. I'm still trying to be a part of that team that wins the last game on the field. That's your goal every day throughout the year. Whatever number it takes to get that done, I look up at the end of the year and see what that looks like. You see guys have a career year and the team doesn't make the playoffs -- that's not remembered. You can say, 'Go put up some numbers,' but where is your team going to be at the end of the year? They just want to know if you went as far as you could as a group."
As far as his baseball smarts, Heyward said they developed early, and I asked him if they are learned or innate.
"I would say both," he said. "I was fortunate enough to be taught the game, kind of where everyone needs to be on the field. I'm left-handed so that puts me at four positions only, or five, if you're counting pitching. You just need to understand the game, where your shortstop needs to be, where your second baseman needs to be, where the catcher's looking to be. Before the pitch is made, where are you going to go with the ball if this happens?
"Those things, I was just fortunate enough to be taught at 7-8 years old. I feel like that's helped me grow into myself and into some of the ability I have. Experience at this level, obviously, is going to be the best teacher. You're not going to learn to play this game at this level other than doing so."
Heyward credits good parenting and a youth coach, Ricky Archer, whom he said helped him develop his baseball skills.
"He let us run out to any position, sometimes just to have fun," Heyward recalled. "He taught us that. He also taught us how to compete the right way, how to do cutoffs and relays, the position you need to have your hands in and your feet in and how to move to the ball. Things like that, I was able to learn early. And I love to practice. So I feel like it just stuck with me. It's always grown with me in essence."
Although Heyward has spent six years in the big leagues, he's only 26 years old. He's one day younger than Rizzo, who has been touted as one of the Cubs' "core" of young players.
Somehow, he appears much older, much more mature, than his age might suggest.
"My family did a great job," he said. "My parents were very supportive. I've got a great support system in that sense. Other than that, I've just been doing it for a little bit now."
The notion that Heyward is only 26 but seems older amuses his new manager.
"The biggest thing with this guy is don't forget he's 26 years of age," Maddon said. "That really baffles me sometimes. He's not 33, and he has this huge body of work. He's 26, and he's arrived at this level of baseball mental maturity, which I think is outstanding.
"Prior to acquiring him, I had a chance to talk to him on the phone, and we had a really good conversation. It revealed to me a lot of what I thought I was seeing, and it was -- a very thoughtful, intellectual kind of baseball player."
So what are Maddon's plans for handling Heyward?
"Set him free, man," he said. "Let him go. Have good conversations with him, understand what he's trying to do out there. Who would not want to work with an athlete like that? Oh my God. That is exactly what you're looking forward to working with. He's bright and he's engaging and he's fun. He's got all this stuff. He's been good for a lot of the guys in the clubhouse already."
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